How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Dear How to Do It,
Are there still sex therapists who will help remove or diminish a fetish? I’m a straight male dom, and while I’ve done the consensual kink thing in the past I’m thinking in the #MeToo era it may be wiser to simply let my sexuality disappear. However, my few attempts at relationships involving non-kinky sex simply resulted in the disappearance of my desire. Any advice?
— Chocolate Wishing for Vanilla
Dear Chocolate Wishing for Vanilla,
Your sexuality isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure that such a drastic measure is as logical as you think. Ethical BDSM is the antithesis of the predatory behavior that necessitated #MeToo. BDSM encourages (if not demands) a pre-play conversation, or even written contract, outlining boundaries, and an agreed-upon, clear, and concise method of rescinding consent with a safe word. Practically speaking, there is no contradiction between a consensual BDSM relationship or encounter and a culture that is outwardly less permissive of rape and harassment. And while I understand that dominating women may seem to reinforce patriarchy, it can actually provide catharsis. A few months ago, my partner in How To Do It–ing, Stoya, explained to me (someone who is indefatigably vanilla): “Sometimes submitting as a woman is a way of processing patriarchy. Looking at the power dynamic up close in a consensual way.”
So, unless you’re particularly bad at consensual BDSM or if you’ve had bad experiences with it that necessitate a change in your ways, I would say it’s actually unwise to suppress something crucial to your desire. When I reached him by phone, Justin Lehmiller told me that this isn’t the first time he’s heard of #MeToo causing people to question their BDSM kinks. Lehmiller is a social psychologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, as well as the author of Tell Me What You Want, a book about sexual fantasies based on his study of more than 4,000 Americans. Lehmiller found the majority of his subjects had fantasized about S&M. Sixty percent had fantasized about inflicting pain during sex. He emphasized how common your sexual interest is—and how difficult it would be to alter it.
“It’s very hard, if not impossible, to change our sexual fantasies and desires willingly,” he told me. He said some psychologists have attempted instituting therapies to do so, with “modest-at-best success rates.” One such method is to have a subject masturbate while thinking of unwanted desires, but then to have that person switch their fantasizing to something socially acceptable upon reaching orgasm. “The idea being that you’re trying to pair pleasure with a more appropriate sexual desire,” Lehmiller said. He added, though, that this doesn’t seem to rid people of those existing desires.
Suppressing desires, he explained, rarely works and can backfire in obsessive preoccupation. “It’s important for us to accept and acknowledge our fantasies and desires,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to act on them, but when we try to run away from them and suppress them that is actually more harmful to us in the long run.” Something more potentially useful would be to expand your range of sexual activity (BDSM, after all, is a wide world) if there’s something about your current practice that you think is a problem.
And by the way, if you need help sorting the ethical from the non- in this realm (which can be murky in many ways, especially given the lack of legal protection for consensual BDSM), Lehmiller reminds you that you can get more involved with your local BDSM community. It likely offers talks and meetings regarding such issues. It seems that managing and perhaps reframing your kink would be way more useful than attempting to clobber the dom out of yourself.
Dear How to Do It,
Is it possible for two people to be sexually incompatible in a literal, physical sense? I’ve been in the process of reconciling with my ex-boyfriend, who I’m in love with and had a beautiful relationship with a few years ago. The problem then, and that I’m finding now, is that we can’t seem to make things work sexually, in part, I think, because he has a giant penis. When we were together (and young), we got into a habit of having mostly great oral sex, but significantly less intercourse. Whenever we tried to have sex normally, it felt kind of like he was punching me in the kidneys. It’s been a few years, and I thought, “Well, we’re older now; I’ve screwed other people; we know all the moves we like and don’t like.” But when we tried again (slowly, patiently, in good humor, with lots of lube) it still … just didn’t work. Some positions felt like a kidney punch. Some I couldn’t figure out how to get him in far enough. Some just seemed like my vagina was angled one direction and his dick went the other. (I have been told by OB-GYNs that my vagina is at some kind of backward angle.)
Now I’m panicking. We admittedly have only tried once since (maybe) getting back together, but is it possible that his dick is just too large for me? Or that my vagina is too backward? Are we just … physically incompatible? If not, are there positions that are better for this kind of thing? Ways I can get more comfortable with someone who goes so deep? In the years since we’ve broken up, I haven’t found a better partner—but I’ve found much, much, much better sex (mostly with guys half his size). Are we doomed to uncomfy sex forever?
—Large, Not in Charge
Don’t panic! It’s only going to make sex more uncomfortable. I would say you’re better off limiting his depth than tolerating “someone who goes so deep.” Ideally, he would be participating in your quest for comfort, too, instead of just standing around letting the blood drain from his head and into his massive schlong. I think the first and easiest thing to try would be a sort of stopper at the base of his penis to reduce amount of inches that are penetrating—something like the OhNut or the ComeClose Pleasure Ring. Positions that facilitate shallower penetration, like side positions (either spooning or side-facing), are also worth a shot. If your quads are strong and you don’t mind a workout, you could also try riding him, manually limiting the amount of length you allow.
While a range of variability (including the angling) in vaginal shape has been documented, perhaps your OB-GYN told you that your uterus is retroverted, which means that it curves in a backward position at the cervix instead of the more common forward position. This can cause discomfort during sex, and if that’s the case, it seems that being on top is the general consensus for the most comfortable sex.
But if you previously had “mostly great” oral sex with this part-man, part-horse, why not keep at it? I understand wanting a range of sexual options and there is a distinct connectedness that people can achieve through intercourse, but look: You already found a way to manage the hose between his legs, and pleasurably. That hardly qualifies you as doomed, in my book.
Dear How to Do It,
Is it possible to date while staying closeted from family? I’m a woman who’s close to my family, and they play an important role in my life. But they are very religious and conservative. I’ve tried to “come out” to my parents a few times. They don’t let me finish speaking, by crying, shouting, or walking out of the house. Setting aside the issue of how parents should or should not behave toward their children, it’s clear that me coming out would hurt them deeply. I would not be able to have a relationship with them or my sisters. It would also negatively impact the professions of many family members.
This is painful, but I love my parents. They support me in many other areas of my life. They are deeply good people, with some bad beliefs. I’ve left my family’s city, where their ministry organization is well-known, and created my own life across the country. Though I’m mainly attracted to women, I’m occasionally attracted to men. I even married one, but we divorced after less than a year. I enjoyed sex with him, even if I always “finished” by imagining being with a woman.
A few weeks ago, I met a beautiful, artistic woman (Ruth) on a flight. We exchanged numbers and have been chatting and visiting by train. I have never felt this close to anyone before, emotionally, spiritually, physically. When we kissed, it finally felt like a real kiss—an actual connection. But Ruth doesn’t know about my parents. We are open in my city and hers. She has met my friend group, and she’s invited me to meet her family. What are my options? Be realistic. I’m nothing if not pragmatic about my situation. I’ve thought seriously, and I’m not willing to cut ties with my family. Losing them would break me. If I need to break up with Ruth, better do it now, before one or both of us fall in love. Is it fair to Ruth—to anyone—to date while staying closeted from my family?
This is a question for Ruth, really, and what she is willing to tolerate. You present a compelling (albeit depressing) case for wanting to compartmentalize your family life and your love life. While it is not ideal, life often isn’t, and I’d hardly begrudge you for doing what you can with the hand that you’ve been dealt. If I’m judging (and, rest assured, I always am), you’ve offered your parents far more compassion than they have to you, and they deserve it way less. This is but one manifestation of the queer person’s burden.
Ruth may understand all of this. She may even relate in some way. Your situation is an extreme version of the kind of negotiation of the private with the public that many queer people grapple with. Ruth may be completely fine with a lopsided arrangement in which you become part of her family and she’s completely frozen out of yours. But that dynamic may also be tricky to navigate, and it may cause stress down the line, so the fairest thing to do is to give her an active role in determining the best course of action. Certainly, it is possible to date while staying closeted from your family—many people in older generations of queers can attest to that. But it won’t be possible if Ruth isn’t willing. The choice you have outlined is, in its own unfortunate way, a method of coping to make your life easier. Choices come with consequences, and that’s a burden that is simply human.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband is a legal immigrant from the Middle East. We had been married and living in the U.S. for two years when I had an outbreak of what I thought was shingles. But testing showed I had herpes! If this was from when he was in the Middle East before arriving here, why would it take so long for me to demonstrate it? He has never had an outbreak that I know of, and I have been completely monogamous. Does this mean he has had sex in the U.S. while we are married?
No, it does not mean that your husband has cheated on you. Herpes can be tricky. Some who have it are completely asymptomatic. Many others have mild symptoms and don’t recognize them for what they are. In a 2010 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that some 80 percent of people with HSV-2 (that’s genital herpes) weren’t aware of their infection. Confusing things further, outbreaks aren’t always consistent. According to a paper written by Dr. Mary A. Albrecht, who works in the Division of Infectious Disease at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and teaches at Harvard:
The first time a person has noticeable signs or symptoms of herpes may not be the initial episode. For example, it is possible to be infected for the first time, have few or no symptoms, and then have a recurrent outbreak with noticeable symptoms several years later. For this reason, it is often difficult to determine when the initial infection occurred, especially if a person has had more than one sexual partner.
Your concerns warrant a serious conversation with your husband, during which you should feel comfortable voicing your fears and suspicions. But it would not be appropriate to accuse him of anything. He hasn’t been caught red-handed (or red-anything else-ed, to hear you tell it)—at least not from the information you’ve provided.
More How to Do It
Every time things start escalating toward sex, my boyfriend wordlessly leaps up from the bed or the couch or wherever we are and turns out the light. At first, I barely even noticed this. But then it became such an undeniable pattern, disrupting the spontaneity of our foreplay, that I started to wonder: Why is he so obsessed with lights-out sex? Whether we’re in the bedroom, or the kitchen, or the living room, there’s inevitably a beat where he stops, strolls over to the light switch, casts us into darkness, and then returns to me. He has a totally normal-looking body, and so do I! Better than normal on both counts, I might even say! So what’s going on here? It’s making me feel weirdly insecure that he only wants to have sex in the dark.